The Australian Magpie: A bird that has never been just black and white (re-issue).

Just prior to Melbourne’s 6th lockdown I was fortunate to explore the Mallee country of Victoria’s North West. The landscapes, birds and wildlife are well-worth driving several hours to get there. And the locals are amongst the friendliest and most hospitable people that you will come across in the Australian bush. One gentleman was giving me the lay of the land, pre-empting the year’s weather up that way.

‘We’re going to have an early Spring’ he told me without an ounce of doubt. He was talking about crops, temperatures and other indicators that he has become attuned to over his decades. The coming of Spring can mean many different things to different people. For me, my thoughts turn to that of The Australian Magpie, its reputation and its habits.

The Guardian Australia held its inaugural poll for Australia’s favourite bird in 2017. The Australian Magpie won that poll, highlighting its place in our national consciousness. The Australian Magpie is more than just a bird to Australians. Families of them are a familiar sight on the front or back lawn. People relate to their social behaviour and family feeding sessions. And their call – or caroling – is a quintessential Australian sound. Many people even develop a bond with the Australian Magpies that patrol the lawn and feel compelled to feed their wild avian residents.

So isn’t it strange that a bird that is widely revered is labeled as a public enemy during Spring? I write this post as much of Australia is starting to move into what we know as ‘Swooping Season’. Each year, largely during Spring, Australian Magpies will attack people who they perceive to be a threat within their nesting territory. The guilty birds are the males of the species and it is estimated that only 10% of male Australian Magpies will swoop. People have genuine fear of the birds during this period, particularly cyclists and joggers. The proportion of swooping birds may well be small but they have been capable of real terror. People have suffered terrible facial injuries, lost eyesight and, tragically, there have even been fatalities caused by the swooping of Australian Magpies. If you are interested in finding out how seriously people take Swooping Season please visit the Magpie Alert web site.

For a bird that is visually Black and White the Australian Magpie is a bird whose life and history is very grey. I have been using the common name of Australian Magpie, which differentiates it from the true Magpie. What do I mean True Magpie? Well, strap yourself in and try to keep up as things might get a little weird. But, the reality of what we commonly refer to as a Magpie here in Australia isn’t a Magpie at all! See, I told you that it’s a little weird.

The misnomer began when Europeans arrived in Australia, noting that their new country had a bird species that was black and white in colour just like the widespread and common Eurasian Magpie.The Eurasian Magpie is a species within the Corvidae Family of birds (over 120 species). To simplify this in taxonomy terms, the Corvidae Family is where you will find bird species such as Crows, Ravens and Jays. The genus Pica comprises the world’s four true Magpies that are spread across Europe, Asia, North America and North Africa.

​The Australian Magpie belongs to the Artamidae Family of birds (24 species). This family includes Currawongs, Butcherbirds and Woodswallows. The Family name of Artamidae comes from Greek and Latin meaning Butcher.

The Australian Magpie’s identity was always going to be confusing. The first European to have described and named the bird was the famed British Ornithologist John Latham in 1801. Latham named the bird as Coracias tibicen – the genus Coracias containing Rollers within the family group Coraciidae. While one can see comparisons with Corvid species from within the Corvidae Family, Coraciidae includes groups such as Bee-eaters and Kingfishers. The very name of Roller also indicates the bird displays acrobatics during courtship or territorial disputes – none of which is the case with the Australian Magpie. For much of the 20th Century the Australian Magpie was considered three separate species, depending on which part of the country you lived in.

There have been other Common Names that the Australian Magpie has had since the bird was discovered by the British. These include Piper, Piping Roller, Piping Shrike, Piping Crow-shrike, Organ Bird, Singing White Crow and Maggie (a name still commonly referred to today).

As if the Australian Magpie isn’t confusing and confused enough there is the Magpie-Lark, a bird often seen in the same circles as the Magpie. If you didn’t know any better you could assume that this smaller bird is a juvenile version of the Magpie. But, despite its name, this bird is neither Magpie…nor Lark. The Magpie-lark is one of only two species within its genus – the other being the Torrent-Lark of Papua New Guinea.

Aside from sharing the Magpies’ colour scheme, the Magpie-Lark also shares a list of fascinating Common Names, many of them still commonly used. It’s not unusual to hear this bird being referred to as Peewee or Mudlark. One of its early names was Pied Grallina while some people in the state of South Australia would know it as a Murray Magpie or Piping Shrike – also an early name of the Australian Magpie just to confuse matters.

As for the Australian Magpie, we maintain have an uneasy relationship throughout our Spring months. And then we return to a truce where we forget about the swooping and enjoy their calls, behaviours and interactions…until the return of Swooping Season again next year.

‘It’s a nice name, but what does it mean?’

Have you ever noticed when you wander around a zoo or botanic garden that the animal or plant you’re looking at has two names? You may see a sign telling you that you’re standing underneath the canopy of a River Red Gum tree, but the same sign also tells you that you’re also standing under a Eucalyptus camaldulensis. If your curiosity goes beyond how beautiful the tree is it may prompt you to wonder what that secondary name is all about.

While those secondary names – known as binomial or scientific names – may seem challenging at first, you can be rewarded if you unravel them. Deconstructing a scientific name can unravel history and quirkiness that gives context to the time and events when European naturalists studied and described elements of our natural world. In this series we will deconstruct some of those strange names and find out that there is often quite a story – or at least a fascinating translation – behind them.

Podargus strigoides Tawny Frogmouth.

In this episode of the series I am being a little self-indulgent as the subject matter is my favourite bird species, The Tawny Frogmouth. And it’s not only my favourite bird. There are over 10,000 species of birds throughout the world and the Tawny Frogmouth is the world’s ‘most Instagrammable bird’. This curious-looking bird can be a master of camoflage. Tawny Frogmouths are surprisingly common, but seldomly noticed by most people. They are active at night, but stationary during the day blending into their tree roost.

A rather confusing bird.

For many of those who do have the pleasure of sighting this enigmatic bird their initial reaction is ‘oh, look, it’s an owl!’ For those of us with some knowledge of birds the automatic response is ‘no, it’s not an owl…it’s related to the Nightjar family’. The below exchange on a recent Facebook post is quite typical of the regular confusion:

Tawny Frogmouth meme photo
Tawny Frogmouth owl meme: unknown source.

Person A: ‘Is this beautiful owl a Tawny?’

Person B: ‘Tawny Frogmouth. A night bird, but not related to owls’.

Person C: ‘As mentioned above. It is a Tawny Frogmouth- which is in its own family, more closely related to the Nightjars.’ 

Person D: ‘Definitely not an owl. Definitely a Tawny Frogmouth from the Nightjar family.’

            Person C: ‘Nope, from the frogmouth family.’

Person D: ‘A beautiful nightjar, not an owl.’

            Person E: ‘While they are closely related with Nightjars, the Frogmouth are actually in their own family Podargus.’

As you can see, it’s a discussion that brings out the inner pedant in birdwatchers. The meme below is good symbolism of that pedantry.

Why all the confusion?

Australian Owlet-nightjar Aegotheles cristatus…neither an Owl, nor Nightjar…or Frogmouth for that matter.

Perhaps the regular innacurate naming of the Tawny Frogmouth can be excused. An earlier common name of the bird was in fact Frogmouth Owl. There are similarities in size and shape between a Tawny Frogmouth and a Boobook Owl, which probably doesn’t help with identification issues.

The modern common name of the species is fairly literal and descriptive. Tawny refers to the grey/brown colour while it’s broad, gaping mouth is reminiscent of that of an amphibian species.

The scientific name of Podargus strigoides was given by the famed ornithologist John Latham in 1801. The bird was the first of the three species within the Podargus genus to be described by an ornithologist. As you will see below, there is quite some detail within the two words that comprise the bird’s name. As detailed as it is, the name probably doesn’t do much to clarify the ongoing confusion with owls.

A bird with origins in myths and legends?

So let’s break it all down to try make some sense of all this: Pod-argus strig-oides:

Pod: Greek for foot. Think podiatry, pertaining to feet.

Podargus: relating to the medical term Podagra. Podagra is the medical condition of Gout, relating to inflammation or arthritis of the foot. For the purpose of birds within the Podargus genus it translates to ‘weak-footed’.

Strig: derived from the ancient Greek and Latin ‘Strix’. In ancient mythology, the Strix (plural Striges) had a number of incarnations throughout different regions of Europe. These interpretations usually involve demons who would take the form of or transform into owls or owl-like creatures. These myths usually involved the demons – or witches – being women. And they would often feast on livers and other internal organs. If you’re interested in more reading on this please look up Modern Greek Folklore and Ancient Greek Religion: A Study in Survivals by John Cuthbert Lawson, 1910.

The term Strix would be carried across these ancient times of folklore and would be applied to actual owls. The largest family of owls, Strigidae, are also known as ‘True Owls’.

Great Grey Owl, Strix nebulosa (a ‘true owl’)

Oides: Ancient Greek meaning likeness or resembles

How does this relate to our beloved Tawny Frogmouth?

We have deconstructed the scientific name of the Tawny Frogmouth, now let’s translate that deconstruction.

Gout tends to be a medical condition that affects the feet of people who drink too much beer or eat too much red meat and are generally overweight. While I have seen some large Tawny Frogmouths I am not aware of any whom drink any amount of alcohol. Their diet is certainly carnivorous, but I don’t suspect them of overeating red meat. Tawny Frogmouths are considered to be ‘weak-footed’ though.

Their feet give them great balance and stability for roosting over many hours. But Tawny Frogmouth’s feet are not strong enough to catch or tear at prey. They use that broad mouth to catch their prey in flight or as the prey passes the bird’s roost.

The species name of strigoides simply translates to ‘like Striges’, effectively ‘like an owl’. The Tawny Frogmouth’s scientific name of Podargus strigoides means a bird that has weak feet and is ‘like an owl’… but it’s not an owl of course!

The Joy of Birds: My first time

Powerful Owl, Ninox strenua

Discovering birdwatching and the open road of new species is an exciting and addictive past-time. It’s still exciting to find a new bird of course, but early on just about every species is a new discovery. The world of the internet has made it much easier to stay on the pulse of significant bird sightings. I’d keep an eye on various forums and birdwatching feeds for reports of anything that I was yet to encounter and was reasonably close. Being easy to find wasn’t always part of the deal, but sometimes you would be fortunate to have clues to a fairly finite area.

My first sighting of a Powerful Owl (Ninox strenua) couldn’t have been much easier back on the 27th of May, 2009. It happened to have been living in a tree in Flagstaff Gardens, one of central Melbourne’s parks where office workers would have lunch or undertake physical training. I commenced a game of find the owl amongst the dense Autumn foliage of the giant Elm trees. Although my photographic equipment was limited to a 300mm kit lens it still enabled me to get a view of this wonder of nature. Here it was, a silent killer living in the middle of the city while hundreds of people would walk directly underneath unaware that they were being watched. But the humans need not worry. Powerful Owls do not have humans on the menu.

I stood there on that day, craning my neck for an angle to point my lens between leaves and branches. A gentleman sidled up beside me and asked ‘are you looking for that Powerful Owl’? I excitedly told him that I had managed to sight it, but for this man the novelty had already worn off. He introduced himself as the secretary of the City of Melbourne lawn bowls club, which is based within the grounds of Flagstaff Gardens. The man then continued ‘that thing causes a mess. I need to get here early to make sure that I collect the possum heads that it leaves on the bowling greens’. Yes, that’s right, the Powerful Owl has an appetite for possums, fur, bones and all.

A Powerful Owl’s ability to decapitate or otherwise dismember a possum is certainly enough justification for its imposing name. Besides Brushtail and Ringtail possums Powerful Owls’ diet can extend to fruit bats and even large birds such as Australian Magpies or Sulphur-crested Cockatoos.

The second time around

I didn’t have to wait too long for my second sighting of a Powerful Owl, and one that was pure chance. My first sighting was in the middle of Melbourne on the 27th of May, 2009. The second came while on a study field trip on the 28th of May, 2009 in the Yarra Ranges, beyond Melbourne’s metropolitan boundary. Whereas the previous day’s owl was up high and tricky to spot owl number two was in the open, a little above head-height. The few photos that I took of this moment were worse than dreadful. I put this down to a number of factors: the terrible, overcast sky, my photographic inexperience or a panic to keep up with my class group.

And there was that stare. Having an eye-to-eye moment with a Powerful Owl is a wonderfully intense moment. Part of you is transfixed that you have this moment, while you wonder if there is the potential to learn how this owl got the name ‘Powerful’. There have been reports of Powerful Owls not taking kindly to human intrusions into their territory. Dr Beth Mott, Birdlife Australia’s Powerful Owl Project Officer, summarised a Powerful Owl/human encounter as ‘generally (been) scratching, but there’s definitely a risk of psychological trauma from getting swooped by such a big bird’. Personally I’d rather be attacked by a family of Australian Magpies than take my chances with one Powerful Owl. At approximately 67cm and over 2kg in weight

Thankfully I have had more encounters with Powerful Owls since those back-to-back days of 2009. And thankfully my photography has improved since then. Powerful Owls tend to be creatures of habit and will return to their favourite roosting trees each year, particularly when adding to their family. For a bird so cryptic and shy it is possible to find them in regular annual roosting areas. Even if you visit a roosting sight several years apart there is a good chance to find a Powerful Owl in that same spot.

Regardless of the photographic evidence, each encounter with one of these amazing birds is a special memory that one doesn’t forget. Those of us who live in Australia’s east coast cities are fortunate to have these special birds living amongst us. And we should do what we can to ensure that future generations keep returning to our suburbs to watch over us…and eat possums.

Graham, Wild Ramblings

The Joy of Birds

I remember a day about a decade and a half or so ago when Laura and I were having some sort of conversation about Australian wildlife. ‘What about birds?’ Laura asked. ‘Birds are just so common‘, I replied, Yes, I meant that in a derogatory way. I must have been chasing sightings of Echidnas, reptiles, anything else but ‘birds’.

I was missing the point at the time. Yes, bird sightings are much more common than mammals and reptiles, but that is the wonder of them – they are all around us in all habitats. Some of the species, such as Silver Gulls, Noisy Miners and Eurasian coots seem to be everywhere and are certainly very common. But some bird species are certainly a rare and special find. And most can’t be found everywhere. It’s fair to say that my simplistic and blinkered view of our feathered friends has shifted somewhat since that day when I scoffed at the ‘commonality’ of the avian branch of the Animalia kingdom. People will often ask me if I developed my interest in birds from a family member at a young age, but my conversion was from a much more technological introduction.

Noisy Miner

Many hardcore traditionalist birdwatchers will often wonder why one needs to point a camera lens at a bird when a pair of binoculars will more than suffice. But for me I can thank my first DSLR camera for revealing the joy of birds. I was fortunate to live in Melbourne’s bayside suburb of Altona when I would take my new toy for a walk or a bike ride around the neighbourhood. I was just looking for interesting ‘things’ to point my 300mm kit lens at. It was only from this exercise that I realised that my suburb had a diverse range of birds that I had never noticed before. Altona has a range of habitats; besides its beaches it has wooded areas, grasses, wetlands and creeks. According to eBird, Altona has recorded at least 169 species in a suburb that is only approximately 10km from the heart of Melbourne. So I had a great range of wonderful birds to hook me in to this wonderful interest.

Royal Spoonbill

Birds such as Black-shouldered Kites, Darters, Brown Falcons and seasonal shorebirds were a wonderful discovery. The size, shape and colours of these birds were a perfect subject for my camera. Yes, some of them were more sedentary and easier to photograph than others (and that is something that never changes by the way). But it was a fascinating challenge all the same.

Black-shouldered Kite

I also wanted to know who these birds were and study their behaviour. I wondered why some birds would be there at some times of the year and not others. I would learn who lived where and what they would eat. And then came the books: my book shelves would start to fill with Field Guides, bird literature and anything else that could fill my head with bird knowledge. Well, they did that, and also managed to tempt me to go find amazing birds that I never knew existed. My camera wasn’t the only technology that came in handy. I was glad to find that the internet was growing with bird-related information and discussion.

While my Canon 400D was my initial medium for finding the joy of birds in the first place, birdwatching has become a medium in its own right. I established a social bird photography group where people could learn together. I made some good friends and learned a lot from being the organiser of this group.

Birdwatching is wonderful excercise on a number of levels. Aside from the walking and carrying of equipment in pursuit of an amazing sighting there is a lot to be said for exercising your senses.

Birdwatching could possibly be nature’s optometrist. Try sighting a tiny Brown Thornbill as it zooms in and out of Acacia implexa. It’s one thing to sight the bird, but another to track its movement patterns as it disappears behind a tree twenty metres away. I now always seem to be on Tawny Frogmouth lookout whenever walking around Melbourne. The species does very well to blend into trees, most people walking right past the stationary bird.

Brown Thornbill

One of the many wonderful thing about Australia’s birds is that they are some of the world’s greatest songbirds. Not only is one of life’s simple pleasures to hear these songs and calls, but it’s a great listening and memory test to attempt to identify birds that you can’t see. Learning bird calls is akin to learning a language. I have even seen people who do a remarkable job of impersonating bird calls. I have even seen birds who are masters of mimicry themselves!

Superb Lyrebird

As you can see, bird watching is a multi-faceted interest. And it is one that anyone can do to any degree; you may become fascinated by what lives in your garden or local park, or you may be someone who spends great money and time, travelling to see as many bird species as possible. The phrase ‘The Joy of Birds’ has become a much used one, but it’s easy to see why.

The fascination and quirks of the avian world is enough justification to turn this into an ongoing series of articles that I hope that you enjoy. Maybe you’ll even be converted to birdwatching along the way.

Graham